“There's only five days between now and then.” There was a man speaking in my room, his voice gruff and matter-of-fact. I smelled something wet and metallic, as well as some sort of animal. Someone was grilling nearby, I could smell the smoke and the meat, but that didn't make any sense to me either. Who grills outside of a hospital?
“And if she wakes up,” came another man’s calm reply, “she’ll make it.”
I groaned as sensation floated back to me. Everything hurt, but I managed to open my eyes. Well, one only half opened – it was clearly swollen, and likely black and purple as well. I could see the night sky through the window. Golden light from a lamp on the bedside table bathed the room in a soft glow. Sitting in a chair next to me was a middle-aged man wearing a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt. He had shoulder-length sandy blonde hair and regarded me with golden-brown eyes. He wasn’t wearing a lab coat. Nothing beeped in time with my heartbeat, and no IV line ran to my arm. This was not a hospital. My heart started to pound in my ears.
Another man with short blonde hair and a vicious scar across the left half of his face pushed off the door frame and left my field of view. He wasn’t wearing a lab coat either. My arms and legs were not restrained – that was a good sign. So maybe these guys rescued me. But why didn’t they take me to a hospital?
“What-” I croaked. My mouth was so dry that the sound was barely more than a whisper.
The seated man handed me a glass of water from the bedside table, and I gulped half of it down before I tried again.
“What happened?” I asked, pressing the glass to my lips for another sip.
“A werewolf,” he replied, closing his hand into a fist. “A crazed werewolf.”
I nearly choked on a gulp of water. “That’s not funny at all,” I managed to get out. I cleared my throat and tried more words: “A werewolf? Really? It was broad daylight out, not a full-moon night. Besides, werewolves are just folklore and stories.” And maybe I'd read too many books like that one with the sparkly vampires. The werewolf stories were always my favorite, though.
He raised an eyebrow at me. “You know, all legends have a hint of truth to them.” He rolled with it, and he was looking me square in the eye like he was telling me I had cancer. Sick bastard.
I squirmed and looked away.
“It’s no joke,” he continued. “Human lives are too short to joke about something so serious.” He said human like it was an. . . other – like the word didn’t apply to him. He said it the way girls complain that boys are mean or silly.
My heart pounded in my ears again. I tried to push myself up on the bed, propelling myself with my right arm (since my left was wrapped in bandages) and winced with pain. That was a mistake. Every movement I made pulled at fresh scabs. Everything itched where it stretched, but worse, it all hurt in that dull ache sort of way that makes you wish it would just stop throbbing for a moment so you could go back to sleep. I bit my lip to stifle a groan and tasted blood. “That thing was nearly as big as a bear,” I protested. My head started to feel too heavy for my neck. “And Colorado hasn’t had wolves for decades.”
“No one believes me the first time,” he said, nodding. He pursed his lips. “I’ll have to show you then.”
When he stood, my eyes went wide and I took a breath to scream, but he turned away from me and walked over to the door. “Jonathan, we're ready for you,” he said in a patient tone. It felt almost fatherly. Weird.
I narrowed my eyes as well as one can when one of your eyes is nearly swollen shut. A huge wolf-thing like the creature on the reserve padded into the room. My heartbeat started to race and a chill went down my spine. I took a breath to try to stay calm. “Jesus-”
“I take that to mean a creature like this is what attacked you,” White t-shirt said, gesturing with an open palm. The creature next to him was pale grey with black blending in on the face, ears, and tail. Its disconcertingly human green eyes were flecked with gold and it regarded me with what I was sure was quiet amusement. I was reminded of a raccoon in a way I couldn't quite explain.
I slowly bobbed my head once, “Just what kind of dog is that thing?!”
The creature sighed.
White t-shirt said, “He’s a werewolf, like I said. Jonathan, if you could please rejoin us and show our doubting guest.”
I swear the thing nodded as every part of it started to contort. Its legs elongated and its torso changed to be more upright, above the hips. The grey fur on its head gave way to a dark goatee and dark brown hair that fell to broad shoulders. As fur became skin, I realized that if there was a man under all the fur and claws and teeth, he was going to be naked. I turned my head away.
“No use being shy about skin anymore,” the naked man said with an amused chuckle. “People clothes don't fit wolves.”
I heard clothes rustling and turned back when I heard a zipper. Scars crisscrossed his entire torso, and I looked to my own bandages. I was pretty sure this is what it looked like to be run over by a cheese grater. I kind of felt like I had too. I smelled steak and potatoes and wood and warmth and wet metal and my stomach did not feel capable of holding down food. Black started creeping into the edges of my vision.
“Oh, Shep, she's got a ways to go, this one,” Jonathan said as the glass of water hit the carpet with a dull thud. I didn't even remember dropping it.
“She'll make it,” white t-shirt said. He looked at me, concern plain on his face as he eased me back into the position I was originally laying in. How did he get across the room so fast?
“Jonathan's the joker of our little pack,” White t-shirt explained. He pulled the blanket back into place around me, brushing wayward strands of hair out of my face. It reminded me of the way my father used to do it when I was a child, hiding in my parents’ bed from thunderstorms. “I'm Sheppard, the pack alpha, and this is my home. Believe it or not, you are perfectly safe here.”
Yep. Blackness won that round, but I must not have been out for long, Sheppard was still standing over me when it cleared. He was looking at me expectantly. Oh yeah, he had just introduced himself. . . . I wasn’t sure I was ready to tell them my real name. I wasn’t fully certain I should even trust them. But something in my gut felt a sincere truthfulness to all of them. It was strange and disconcerting.
“Call me. . . Lynn,” I said. That’s a better name for them to know me by. Sheppard raised an eyebrow, but nodded knowingly. I tried to narrow my eyes again to read his face.
“Pack doesn't keep secrets, it goes deeper than family or blood. You'll see,” Sheppard said.
“I'm not in your pack,” I started to protest. God, I'm just a girl who clearly didn't show the best judgment with her choice of running locales. What the hell did he mean by pack anyway?
“Well,” Sheppard pursed his lips. “Maybe not, but you are a werewolf now, and there's no getting around that.”
“What? Not a chance!” There was no way. Okay. So maybe hottie with the scarred torso over there was a werewolf. And maybe so was Sheppard. But not me.
“It’s true,” Jonathan said softly.
“Thank you, Jonathan,” Sheppard said, his tone clearly meant to quiet any more comments from Jonathan. “Go get Kaylah for me, would you?”
“Sure,” Jonathan said, ducking his head as he left the room.
“You are a werewolf, Lynn,” Sheppard said. “The sooner you can make peace with that, the better.”
I rolled my eyes. Maybe only one of them rolled. The other was pretty swollen. “Sure I am.” But the cold chill on my spine and the pit in my stomach told me that I was simply lying to myself. I couldn’t pinpoint or explain how on Earth I knew it, but I could feel the truth of his words. Dammit.
“I already proved to you that werewolves are real.” He leaned closer to me. “I can prove that you’re one too, you know,” he said in conspiratorial tones, his golden-brown eyes boring into mine. It was uncomfortable, but I fought the urge to look away. “How many have been in this room today before you woke up?”
“Four.” I had answered without even thinking; I just knew it.
Sheppard raised an eyebrow. “And how do you know that?”
That. . . was a good question. I frowned and picked at my thoughts. “I. . . smelled that they were here.”
Sheppard crossed his arms in satisfaction and sat down in the chair.
I blinked and scrunched up my face. “Okay.” I took a deep breath. “Let's say I believe you – since I'm clearly in no condition to argue the point. How is that even possible? I should be dead. If it wasn't for the other. . . wolf that jumped in, I'd be lunch meat.”
“That is exactly how it works. You have to get enough werewolf into your system for it to take over healing for you. It's how you survive an attack and it's how you turn from human to werewolf.”
A waify woman with long platinum-blonde hair and crystal blue eyes came into the room holding two plates of steak and potatoes. She smelled sweet and faintly of flowers. My mouth watered at the sight of the food; I may have thought my stomach couldn't handle it, but God, was I ever hungry. She handed one of the plates to Sheppard and gingerly placed the other on my lap. As I shoved two large pieces of potato in my mouth with the fork, she crinkled her nose and eyed me.
“Those bandages need changin',” she said with a southern drawl that was thick as molasses in the winter. “You'd best eat up to give yerself some fuel.” Looking to Sheppard she took a deep breath and added, “Her first change is gon' be rough.”
Sheppard nodded. “It always is.” He looked to me. “But Kaylah's right, you've got an awful lot of healing to do and less than a week to get it done.”
I nearly choked on the piece of steak I was chewing on. If I didn’t die from the pain suffusing throughout my body, I was going to die from choking on stupid bits of food and beverage while they all enjoyed their little werewolf game. “A week?!” I knew that both my right leg and left wrist were broken, there was zero chance they'd be healed in a week.
“Five days to the next full moon,” Sheppard said. “The legends and stories get that part right at least. It's the full moon that pulls the change from you. . . at least the first time.”
My plate was empty. How was my plate empty? Kaylah gently took it from my lap.
“I'll be back with more, hun. Don't look so disappointed, there's plenty where that came from.” She left the room.
A clock ticked from somewhere within the house and I looked to Sheppard. “So, this is your house.” I am a stunning conversationalist, just ask me.
His smile was gentle. “This is my home: pack central. We usually have at least two wolves in residence here aside from me, and everyone is welcome.”
“Everyone in your pack at least,” I guessed.
“And some who are not,” he made a vague gesture in my direction. I heard sarcasm in his tone. “The world at large isn't ready for werewolves. We are very much still creatures that go bump in the night.” He stood, empty plate and dirty fork in hand, “Which is why you couldn’t go to a hospital. They wouldn’t know what to do with your recovery.” He crossed the room to leave, “I suspect you'll want some privacy while Kaylah helps you with those bandages.”
I sighed. Well, at least there was an explanation for why this wasn’t a hospital.
A dark-haired head poked into the room, and amused green eyes met mine. “Kind of a lot to take in,” Jonathan said, stepping into the room. He now had a black shirt on with a skull and crossbones on it along with the jeans from earlier.
I pulled the blanket up to cover more of my bandage-covered body as I realized the wet metal I was smelling was me and all the bloody bandages.
“No kidding,” I agreed as he sat down on the edge of the bed. I tried to pull my feet up and over to give him room, but only managed to wiggle one foot a little in the direction I wanted. It hurt. I winced. Why’d he have to be so close?
The right corner of his mouth quirked up. It gave me butterflies. Dammit. “It’s a wonder you can get any bit of you to agree to do what it’s asked. I saw you when Matt and Sheppard brought you in. You were definitely lunch meat then.”
“But you’ve come a long way in just a couple of days,” he said. “For what it's worth, I think you'll be fine.”
My not-swollen eye threatened to bug out of my head and I was glad I wasn't trying to eat anything. “A couple of days?” Good lord, that can’t be true.
Jonathan nodded. “They brought you in around midday the day before last.”
I mouthed 'day before last' and lifted the blanket and sheet to look at my mangled body. The sweatpants and tank top I was wearing were not mine, but they both had bloodstains that matched where my injuries were underneath them. I met his eyes again. “Oh sure,” I said. “I'll be just fine.” Why are all the hot ones crazy?
Jonathan gave me an impish smile. “What’s really gonna get your goat,” he said, “is how fast you’ll heal after your first change. We’re just this side of bulletproof, y’know.” He waggled an eyebrow at me and his voice dropped to conspiratorial tones. “Besides,” he continued, “this pack is a sausage fest, you gotta be just fine!”
“JONATHAN!” Kaylah was back with so much steak and potatoes I wasn't sure how she managed to get it all onto the plate, and I was certain there was no way it was all going to fit in my belly.
Jonathan flinched and winked at me. Turning to Kaylah he shrugged, “I'm just saying, Kaylah. You and Chastity both have mates! That leaves four of us out in the cold!”
I tried to laugh, but only managed to hurt myself and I bit down on another groan. “It’s alright,” I managed. “At least he hasn't tried to grab my ass.”
“Yet,” Jonathan retorted. “Mostly because you’re laying on it.” He grinned. “But also because it was probably run through a meat grinder like the rest of you.”
“Enough!” Kaylah exclaimed. “Git!” She mimed kicking him as he hurried out the door, stealing a potato off my plate as he went. Rolling her eyes, she smiled at me, “He's a joker, but he's got a heart of gold. Our pack just wouldn't be the same without him and his brother Jamie.” She handed the plate to me, “Go on an' eat up. We'll change your bandages as soon as you’re done and then it'll be more rest for you lil' lady.”
I shoved potatoes and bits of steak in my mouth as she went in and out of the room gathering washcloths, bandages, cortisone cream, and alcohol. The more she gathered, the more I was sure that every single bit of what was coming was going to make me wish that thing had just killed me instead. As I shoved the last couple of bites into my mouth, she disappeared again and came back carrying a mug of something that smelled sweet and bitter all at once. It overpowered everything else in the room but the wet metallic smell of my wounds. She placed the mug on the table next to the bed.
“Unfortunately, there ain’t a painkiller out there that works worth a damn for us.” She nodded at the tea, “but that’ll help afterward.” She shut the door to the room. “You got all them wolves on edge with all’a your bleedin',” she said as she took the plate from me and set it on the table next to the bed.
“They'd mostly prefer to tear me up than see me get better?”
“Gracious no!” Her genuine shock caught me off guard. “Sheppard named you pack, girl, whether you take it or leave it, and pack looks out for each other. Good night where'd you get such a cockamamie idea?!”
Maybe it was all the books and stories that portray werewolves as hyper-violent creatures. But if Kaylah and Jonathan and Sheppard were all werewolves, those stories were far from the truth of things. And why shouldn’t they be? They’re just made up stories, aren’t they?
Deft hands started unwrapping the bandages on my leg. Some of them stuck to the underlying wounds and I winced and bit my lip to stifle a groan. I wasn’t going to scream. I wasn’t going to scream. I just needed to breathe. Another bandage off my leg and I tasted blood in my mouth as I groaned.
Kaylah looked at me disapprovingly and gave me a wad of gauze. “Bite down on that or you won't have any lip left by the time I'm done wit' ya.”
I did as she said.
“Now sure those wolves ain't all gonna love ya just 'cause Sheppard tells them to, but they're all pretty friendly once you get to the meat of them.”
Another bandage free and I bit harder on the gauze. She worked quickly to get all of the bandages off, it was the scrubbing of the tender fresh wounds underneath that really made me realize I had no idea what pain I was capable of surviving. Blackness loomed at the edges of my vision, but each time Kaylah had another quip to add about one of the wolves. I'll admit though that I didn't catch it. Her southern drawl bit through the worst of the pain to distract me enough to try to concentrate on what she was saying, but my conscious mind retained none of it.
Then it was done, and she was handing me the mug of the strange tea. It was warm as it slid into my belly. She slipped from the room with a bag full of dirty bandages destined for the trash.
“There's lots of books out there about werewolves and vampires,” I blurted out when she returned. “They tend to be some of my favorites.” Rambling counts as conversation, right? “They make for a great escape from a world that's just a little too real when you're eating cups of noodles three times a day because your rent just ate your entire paycheck.”
Sheppard appeared in the doorway, his arms crossed. He was built like a football player: all bulky muscle. “Those books get quite a bit wrong.” There was something about the tone of his voice – something he wasn’t saying.
“Let me guess: the vampires are real.” I tried to make it sound like a question; I doubt I succeeded.
He smiled softly and nodded, “And they outnumber us ten to one easy.”
Kaylah sat in the chair next to the bed as he stepped into the room.
I took another sip of the tea as muscles I didn't know had been tensed began to relax and the throbbing started to subside. “Why?”
Sheppard shrugged, “Not many survive the sort of attack it takes to get enough wolf in your system to even chance surviving the change. Even fewer are born to it.”
“And makin' a vamp ain't nearly so hard as makin' a wolf,” Kaylah added. “Just takes an exchange of blood.”
“Wait,” I said. “You can be born a werewolf?!” Not many of the books I'd read mentioned that sort of thing.
Sheppard's entire demeanor changed. The very air in the room felt charged with something I couldn't even begin to describe. “I was,” he said simply.
I took a sip of my drink and became very interested in what the inside of my mug looked like. The tea was more orange-yellow than the brownish color of the iced tea I grew up with.
“Get some rest,” he said, “we'll talk more tomorrow.”
I drained the last bit in my mug. Kaylah took it from me as I relaxed back into the pillows. Something here felt right – felt true. Unlike the invading blackness from before, a different sort of peaceful darkness overtook me, floating me away from consciousness.
A PLACE TO RUN will be available for purchase July 2019!